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TMQ on “Secret” Meetings

In this week’s TMQ, Gregg Easterbrook wonders about the abuse of the English language:

TMQ Wrote This Item in Secret: Commentators across the political spectrum are complaining that the debt-reduction supercommittee on Capitol Hill is meeting “in secret.” Televised public hearings would turn the supercommittee into yet another political sideshow. That is what many interest groups want — to ensure that supercommittee becomes a meaningless exercise in blather, because interest groups both liberal and corporate oppose any discipline in government spending. Being away from the cameras is essential to the supercommittee’s chance of success.

This raises the misuse of the hype word “secret.” Over the summer, when Barack Obama and John Boehner were talking about the deficit, Fox News ran a bright-red crawl that said, “SECRET TALKS ON DEBT DEAL.” In 2008, before Hillary Clinton endorsed Obama’s bid for the presidency, the pair had an evening meeting at the home of California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Dozens of media types camped on the street in front of her house and did stand-ups expressing anger that they were not being allowed inside. ABC News and CNN grumpily complained that Clinton and Obama were holding a “secret meeting.” Secret — although television news vans were 100 feet away!

For hype reasons, journalists and politicians increasingly say “secret” when they mean “private.” The debt supercommittee is not acting in secret — every American knows what the supercommittee is doing. The sessions simply are private, to prevent their being taken over and converted into lobbyist theater. Clinton and Obama didn’t sneak off to some remote location, using a cover story, to meet secretly. They met in private, with everyone knowing they had decided to do so.

Secret and private are very different concepts. If by “secret,” commentators mean “not shown live on television,” 99.99 percent of human events occur “in secret.” By this standard, Fox News planned its coverage of the debt talks “in secret.” You’re reading this “in secret.”

True secrecy is rare. Use of this loaded word to puff up what otherwise would be routine news is yet another example of the debasement of language.

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